I’m willing to bet my male colleagues don’t usually get feedback like this on their student evaluations:
“She’s easy on the eyes so it’s pretty easy to stay awake in class.”
“She’s a great teacher who really cares about her students’ lives — she always has tissues if we need them.”
“She’s an ugly opinionated know-it-all who doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
But this kind of thing is par for the course for female professors.
Evidence is mounting that the teaching evaluations professors in higher education are often required to submit in their applications for tenure and promotion are subject to a significant and observable gender bias. When students rank their experiences in a classroom on a scale from 1 to 5, male professors receive ratings that are, on average, 0.4 points higher than female professors.
Student evaluations were designed to be a check against unaccountable tenured professors. Instead, they’ve become a check against many women’s academic careers. Given how biased these metrics are, institutions of higher learning simply cannot continue to allow them to influence tenure and promotion decisions. (Indeed, this is something my own university has largely forgone. We still collect the information and try to use it to better our teaching — it just can’t be used to sink our tenure prospects.)
The experiences of sexual harassment being called out by the #MeToo movement overwhelmingly share a particular dynamic, one in which a younger woman is taken advantage of by an older and more powerful man. This dynamic is probably the first thing that comes to mind when most of us think about what sexist oppression is like: there’s a single bad actor who intentionally victimizes a powerless woman.
But the injustices in student evaluations have a very different dynamic. Powerful women can be brought down, often unintentionally, by a number of men (and presumably also some women) who are supposed to have less power. These evaluations are proof — hard evidence — of the reality that feminists have long talked about but had difficulty convincing some others of: that most oppressive harms aren’t the result of the intentional actions of an individual person, and are instead more often the unintentional result of an interrelated system of social norms and institutions.
Say one day you come across a hungry bird that’s standing motionless in front pile of seed. Why doesn’t the bird hop over and devour the food, you ask yourself? Then you step back a bit and realize there’s a wire in front of the bird. But you still can’t figure out why the stupid bird doesn’t hop around the wire and get a solid meal. Then you step back a bit more and see another wire. You step back even further and realize that there isn’t one or two or three, but hundreds of wires between the bird and its food, constraining it and ensuring its ultimate starvation.
This birdcage metaphor, invented by feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye, explains the nature of sexist oppression. No one random setback could oppress a woman. But a catcall, a pinch on the rear, a mansplaining coworker who takes credit for your ideas, a patronizing look, an overlooked promotion, a grope that goes 2 inches too far, being called slutty if you have sex or frigid if you don’t, earning 79 cents on the dollar, being expected to give up your name in marriage, watching movies that treat women like sexy furniture instead of actual people, being one of the one in six women who’ll experience sexual violence, attending a church where only men get to be made in God’s image, clocking more than twice as many hours on household chores as a husband who seems to think his dinner is cooked and house is cleaned and children are tended to by invisible elves — all of this forms a cage.
The birdcage metaphor explains why feminists often seem to get their panties in a bunch over things that look trivial — things like sexist jokes, or having to drive almost 200 miles to get an abortion you’re legally entitled to, or small but statistically significantly lower scores on student evaluations. They understand that these things aren’t trivial at all, that they can’t be understood in isolation.
Oppression doesn’t require individual people to act as oppressors. To be sure, oppression can take place when one individual person intentionally does something that harms another — if nothing else, the #MeToo movement has shown us that. But this kind of intentional harm isn’t the only, nor even the most common, kind of oppressive injustice.
And that’s what’s going on with student evaluations. No one is suggesting that students are all sexists, that they consciously think that men are better professors, that they’re intentionally trying to destroy their female professors’ careers. Students are simply unconsciously reproducing what our society has long been telling them about the appropriate roles and behaviors for men and women.
It’s not their fault that their female professors don’t neatly fit the social scripts. But it will be the academy’s fault if it continues to allow biased student evaluations to derail women’s careers.
Carol Hay is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is currently writing a book about feminism entitled “Quite Contrary.”